Gabriel Rucker: You Can Be A ‘Cool Chef’ And Still Be Sober

HuffPost. January 2023.

Gabriel Rucker is the chef and owner of Le Pigeon and Canard restaurants in Portland, Oregon. He is a two-time James Beard Award winner, and a relentless advocate for sobriety and helping people in the Portland community who are struggling with addiction. In this Voices in Food story, Rucker talks about why it is important for chefs to move away from the bad-boy persona and to be vocal about promoting a sober, healthy lifestyle in the restaurant industry. 

I liked to party in high school and college. I wasn’t a very good student and was suspended several times for drinking. When it was time to pick a career, the culinary industry seemed appealing, as it looked like it would suit my lifestyle. Anthony Bourdain was my poster boy. So I took cooking classes and started working in the kitchen.

When I got into the restaurant business, alcohol was my main stress aid, but slowly it became a habit. I knew I had an addition — I had seen my father in recovery, but I didn’t want to deal with it at the time. I was busy building my career and thought I’d wait till later to get sober. It wasn’t a priority in my life. 

My wake-up call came in 2013, soon after my second child was born and my cookbook ”Le Pigeon: Cooking at the Dirty Bird” had just come out. I was a horrible mess during that cookbook tour. I wasn’t fully present and often showed up wasted. After I got back in town, we had some neighbors over and I got very drunk and created a scene. That’s when something clicked inside and I felt I needed to make a change. I asked my dad to take me to an Alcoholics Anonymous meeting.

In the beginning, I just needed to learn how to stop drinking and how to live my life without alcohol. AA gave me that foundation — the meat and potatoes of how to recover, a blueprint for how to live a peaceful and serene life. It gave me a solid foundation and helped me see the bigger picture. I have not had a relapse since.

Once I overcame my addiction, I no longer wanted to be anonymous. I wanted to share my story with anyone who could benefit from it. But I did not take any calculated steps in order to influence other people. I was just living a better life myself and sharing what I was doing. In today’s social media age, you can tell when someone is trying hard to grab attention. I wasn’t trying. I was genuine. I guess I was lucky that people were attracted to my run clubs, workout photos, and posts dedicated to sobriety and fitness. 

My recovery-themed tattoo “one day at a time” is the main mantra of AA, which is a constant reminder that you only have to not drink one day at a time. I look at it every time I am stressed about work. But I also have some fun and stupid tattoos that remind me about the time I got wasted and got etched with a stoned unicorn flying out of my underpants! 

I love being a sober chef. I am now able to think more clearly, be more creative, and not come into work hungover, feeling shitty. It’s an amazing feeling! As a leader of my restaurant crew, I am focused and present, and can expect others to do their best, too. I still have stress in my life, but I deal with it by exercising, swimming, eating pizza or simply by spending quality time with my family.

One day, I got a random phone call from Ben’s Friends founder Mickey Bakst asking if I would help start a West Coast chapter in Portland, so chef Gregory Gourdet and I did. I had heard about the organization being beneficial to people in the service industry. They are less structured and work as a complement to AA’s 12-step program, and offer a safe place for people to share their experiences and support each other. It is not only a comfortable place where sober chefs can connect, but also where struggling cooks who are not ready to jump into AA or rehab can find hope and inspiration from people who understand their battle. The pandemic really helped us grow. There were daily in-person and Zoom meetings, so you weren’t as isolated. 

Chefs like me need to be in the forefront of having open conversations around sobriety. Some of us had the idea of collaborating for an event. So, in September 2018, we hosted the first-of-its-kind zero-proof dinner festival with nationally acclaimed chefs at Feast Portland. It was the first big collaboration of sober chefs and zero-proof bartenders. Around 70 people came, and trailblazing cooks like Sean Brock, Michael Solomonov, Andrew Zimmern and myself cooked. We shared our stories and stood together to make a public call for a healthier, less toxic industry. A bunch of young cooks around the country saw this and started thinking about how they, too, can make a change.

I tell my staff that alcohol is not bad. It’s just bad for me because I have an addiction issue. I ruined the privilege of drinking for myself, but I want to give others a choice to not drink, too. Just because you don’t drink doesn’t mean you can’t have a great experience when dining out. My staff and I created a five-course nonalcoholic drink-paired menu so we can show the creativity of our bartenders and servers, while offering a great alternative to diners. 

I think people like us are helping move away from the bad-boy persona that celebrity chefs are associated with. We are trying to show that you can be a cool chef and still live a good lifestyle. I get messages from chefs from all over the country saying they follow me on Instagram or would like to make a similar change in their lives. I give them my phone number and take the time to talk to them. I believe talking in the open about these issues will help create that change across the industry. 

I want to be a sober role model for the next generation of chefs, leading by example. Again, I don’t try to promote myself or be a spokesperson for anything, but rather just be accessible and inclusive. If they pay attention and are attracted to what I am doing, I am open to sharing more stories. 

~ Written for and published by HuffPost. All rights reserved.

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